What You Need to Know About the New Coronavirus
Public health officials around the world have become concerned about a new type of virus first identified in China in December 2019. Originally named 2019-novel coronavirus, it has been renamed COVID-19, which stands for corona-virus disease 19. Thousands of cases and more than 1,000 deaths have been confirmed. People who had traveled to China have spread the illness to several countries, including the United States. The virus also has spread from person to person. So far, the number of cases outside China remains low. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is actively investigating and providing frequent updates.
We spoke recently with Eric Sachinwalla, MD, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Healthcare Network, about the outbreak.
Q: What is a coronavirus and are the viruses common?
A: Coronaviruses are actually a family of respiratory viruses. The common cold is caused by a type of coronavirus. There are many different types. Some of them cause infections in humans; many of them cause infections in animals. And sometimes one of the animal ones mutates in such a way that it can then move from infecting animals to infecting humans. That’s what happened several years ago with the SARS virus. SARS and MERS are the two big coronaviruses that have caused outbreaks of serious illness in the last 15 years or so.
Q: What is distinctive about COVID-19?
A: It’s a brand-new virus that we haven’t ever really seen cause infections in humans before, but we’re learning more about it. The thought is that it started in Wuhan City in Hubei Province. It’s probably from some animal source originally, but now it is capable of being transmitted from person to person. They know that because they’ve found people who have not traveled to that city but have been exposed to somebody who was sick and then they’ve gotten sick.
Q: Does COVID-19 cause serious illness?
A: As we’re starting to learn more, it does seem like it can cause severe illness in some people. People have unfortunately died from this. People who have underlying medical conditions or older people seem to be at higher risk for more severe illness. People who are otherwise healthy seem to be able to overcome the infection and recover.
Q: Should people in the United States be concerned about this virus?
A: At this time, the risk of exposure to the general public for the new coronavirus is relatively low. It is important to remember that other respiratory viruses, such as the flu, are also circulating at this time and are more common. All people should practice good respiratory etiquette including covering their mouth and nose if they are coughing or sneezing, washing their hands frequently, and staying home if sick.
Q: What are the typical symptoms?
A: Most people that get sick from this have a fever, cough, muscle aches – and difficulty breathing in severe cases. These are very generic symptoms of lower respiratory tract illness. Sore throat can be seen early on. Less commonly, sputum production, headache, and diarrhea occur.
Q: How is COVID-19 spread?
A: Most coronaviruses are spread – and the theory is that this one is spread – through respiratory secretions. Either somebody coughs and sheds the virus into the air or it lands on a surface and someone touches that surface and then touches their face. So it can spread from person to person that way.
Q: In the United States, who should be concerned that new symptoms of fever and cough might be caused by COVID-19?
A: The CDC is telling healthcare providers to watch out for anyone who has symptoms and has been in China in the last two weeks or has been in close contact to someone who is either suspected or confirmed to have the infection.
Q: If you’re in that situation that you just described and you start having these kinds of symptoms, what should you do?
A: If you were recently in China or were around someone who is either suspected or confirmed to have this infection, and you start to have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. If you feel very ill, call 911 and let them know that you think you might have the new 2019 coronavirus, COVID-19.
Q: How does the risk of death from COVID-19 compare with the risk from influenza that we face every year?
A: Right now it seems that the people who are at risk for bad outcomes with flu are the same people that are at risk for bad outcomes with COVID-19, but your chances of being exposed to flu are much, much higher.
Q: What can people do to prevent respiratory infections?
A: The most important thing is getting your flu shot. At least that will help protect you against the flu, which kills many thousands of Americans every year. Then follow good respiratory etiquette to protect against flu and all of the other things.
- If you have a cough, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or cough into your elbow to prevent the virus from spreading out into the open air where you could potentially infect someone else.
- Even if you aren’t sick, make sure you wash your hands frequently.
- Maintain a distance from people who are sick.
- If you’re sick, stay home from work because people at work don’t want your germs.
Q: What is the Einstein Healthcare Network doing to respond to COVID-19?
A: We’re notifying our staff to be on the lookout for this virus. We’re also working on putting out information and signs for the public in our offices and hospitals, saying that if you’re sick and you were either in China or exposed to someone who might have this infection, please let us know so that we can give you a mask, isolate you and do testing if that’s warranted.
We routinely ask everyone during patient intake about any foreign travel and if they have any symptoms. We’ve been doing this for a while because there are other infections that someone who’s traveled recently has a higher risk of getting. That just helps us learn sooner rather than later that we have to change our thought process related to a diagnosis. Public health officials are all keeping a very close eye on this, and from our end we’re going to continue to try to keep our staff and patients informed as we learn more.